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The Laughing Policeman

Long ago, in the days when men wore proper hats and opened car doors for ladies, there were amusement arcades on the end of any seaside pier. There, amongst the crane machines that robbed you blind and the handle-cranked ‘What The Butler Saw’ Mutoscope reels with Edwardian ladies disporting in their dishabille much to the secret delight of coy youths with restless genitals, there was exhibited an automaton in the form of a ruddy-faced laughing policeman. There’s one in the clip below: see how jolly he is, laughing in gratitude for the gift of a penny in the slot. (Once you get the idea stop the clip; gets a bit irritating after a while).

A policeman’s lot is not a happy one. I imagine your average Peeler doesn’t have so much to laugh about these days. Certainly, he might chuckle to himself as he pulls over yet another drunk or a cretin on a mobile phone. He might well gleefully giggle at the ribald ‘cavity-search’ humour of his colleagues back at the nick. Mostly though, he doesn’t have time because he is too busy feeling the collar of reprehensible rogues. The last thing he or she needs is to be made to study for a degree.

From 2020, according to the College of Policing, all new-intake police officers in England and Wales will have to be educated to degree level. It is said that the training would help address changes in crime-fighting. Prospective officers can either complete a three-year “degree apprenticeship”, a postgraduate conversion course or a degree. The National Police Chiefs’ Council said the changes would “help modernise the service”.

Certainly there is a need for knowledge of technology and, yes, policing has changed. Even bobbies turning up at a pub brawl will have to use technology in the aftermath. That’s obvious. Cyber-crime, online bullying, at risk children and the like all require a level of online competence.

Trouble is, this is ‘bee-in-the-bonnet’ thinking. Once an idea like this takes shape in official circles it becomes an obsession to the exclusion of the bigger picture. The worrying begins when senior officers (at the behest of politicians no doubt) make statements like ‘officers were just as likely to be “patrolling online” as on the street’.

This is where it starts becoming a concern. How will prospective recruits to the service think? It’s all right for graduate entrants with their eye on the fast track to the big office but what about the others? Maybe they aren’t the academic type yet want to serve the community. We are short enough of cops right now without frightening off good candidates for the job of hands-on thief-taking Bobby.

There are already so few ‘beat’ officers that the service is now reactive rather than pro-active. In the days of the laughing policeman the sight of a beefy copper patrolling the streets at night would make rascally types think twice lest they get hauled off to the chokey. Now, by the time a CCTV operator presses the panic button the crime is all but done. If they do catch anybody they will have to appear before the beak who, with a gnarled, quivering, pointing finger, will give them an ASBO – a matter of pride among small-time ne’er-do-wells.

Obviously we need policemen who understand technology but they are not the only ones we need. It would not be unfair to say that some of the boys in blue currently in service are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. They are however – at the grass roots at least – mostly a dedicated bunch who take their job of protecting the public and property seriously. That’s what we need. There may well be a case for Harry Potter Peelers who can decipher online accounts and know how to line up satellites but we will always need chunky chaps who can bundle a bad boy into the back of a prison van.

Retired police officer Norman Brennan, who served us dutifully for thirty-one years in London and now campaigns for police protection, said degrees came “at the bottom of the priority list” for police.

He said: “The only degree a police officer needs is a degree of common sense – they’ll learn on the job. The public don’t care about police having degrees. They want someone competent, caring and capable.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. We don’t especially need a laughing policeman but we do need a policeman who can have the last laugh down on the streets where it matters. Geoff Maxted